Bruce Cockburn: Telling the Truth About the Human Condition

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s 29th album, Life Short Call Now (Rounder) is being released this month and it continues to showcase his unique position as a sometimes-angry analyst of the world scene who nevertheless manages to present his near-photographic songs wrapped in such neat, melodic packages that even pop radio occasionally pays attention. Certainly, only Bruce Cockburn could have gotten a song called “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (written after a visit to a Guatemalan refugee camp in Mexico) on MTV. If he wasn’t such a great singer, guitarist and wordsmith he’d have been consigned long ago to the back row at folk festivals.

Cockburn attended Berklee College of Music and worked in several rock groups before recording his first solo album in 1970. The 1979 album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws yielded his first U.S. hit, “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” Cockburn, a devout Christian, is a regular reader of E Magazine and a passionate advocate for environmental causes. His songs take on such challenging topics as the International Monetary Fund’s lending practice and the damage caused by land mines. This interview with him took place in New York City, near the beginning of a U.S. tour that continues through September 17.

E Magazine: What is the role of the musical artist as a political force? A lot of performers think it’s not their role at all, but strong opinions have been a big part of your music from the beginning, since the early 1970s.

It’s a choice that everybody has to make for themselves. But for me, my job as a songwriter, and I think as any kind of artist, is to tell the truth about what I can grasp of the human condition and what it is to be alive in the world. That truth includes the sexual, the spiritual and what people like to call the political. It’s been said that anytime you get a group of people doing anything together it becomes political, and that’s more or less true. So the artists who go around saying they’re not political are basically saying that they’re supporting the status quo. They are being political; they can’t help it because they have a role. The society itself is politics, and if you’re in it you’re going to have a part to play whether you like it or not—or whether you know it or not. So if I encounter something that touches me with sufficient emotional force to trigger the creative process, a song comes out. And the process is the same whether the subject is an issue of some kind or more personal.

You have a song on your new album called “This is Baghdad.” I hear in that song something I’ve heard a lot in your work. You’re like a journalist or photographer, offering up very specific images that cumulatively add up to a very clear picture of a place and time.

Thank you for noticing that. [Laughs] I try to do that a lot. I’ve come over the years to see my own songwriting as something that’s, in a way, cinematic. A lot of my songs are structured the way one would put together a film. As you said, there were little scenes that I try to make as vivid as possible and the juxtaposition of those scenes is what creates the overall point or impression of the song. “This is Baghdad” was the result of a visit there in 2004. I spent a week in Iraq and tried to capture the feel of it in that song.

I’m thinking of your song “Tokyo,” in which you have that image of “Grey-suited businessmen pissing against the wall.” It has always struck me as very vivid, and I can picture you seeing that. And again, it’s like a reporter would see it.

The difference between me and a reporter is I don’t have to pretend to be objective. Reporters do have to pretend. I mean it is a pretense because nobody’s objective. But I don’t have that constraint, so, you know, when I write a song I’m giving you the way it hit me. And, you know, that’s kind of my job.

Your song “Dancing in Paradise,” about Jamaica, is that kind of song, too.

Things are not simple for me most of the time. I see layers, layers of circumstance, layers of meaning and you can’t always get all of that—all of the implications of something into a song. A song by its nature is kind of a compact entity, ideally at least. But you can hint at the complexities of things and suggest the layers. “Dancing in Paradise” is really a direct translation of notes taken during a trip to Jamaica, straight out of a notebook into something that can be recited over a groove, with a little sung chorus. I think you are probably the only person who ever mentioned that about the song since it was recorded in the late 1980s.

Were you surprised when your song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” became a hit in 1984? I mean, it’s one of your more explicitly political songs. It’s probably the one you thought least likely to become a hit.

© Jim Motavalli

That’s true. People were starting to talk about it as we were getting close to the release date for that album. They were saying, “‘Rocket Launcher’ is going to get on the radio.” And I said, “No way, no way.” And you know, sure enough there it was and it made it onto MTV, which is the only time they’ve ever paid any attention to me. I attribute that to the fact that MTV was still finding its feet and hadn’t figured out what to be yet. In any case, it was great that it got aired.

It was interesting, the response to that song. Some people got it. The majority of people responded to it as an emotional statement and didn’t really care what it was specifically about, but they appreciated the venting of outrage. A lot of people go around angry and they don’t have a place to put it, so they found the song helpful in that regard.

In both your hit “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and on the new album, you make a connection between the mind of a person holding a gun and the gun itself, which I always thought was a great analogy. I just saw this movie Lord of War, which is sort of about that actually.

The best part of that movie is when this vicious African dictator refers to himself as a “lord of war” and the Nicholas Cage character says, “Well, I think the word is ‘warlord,’” and the dictator says, “I prefer lord of war.” And I thought that was a really well-written speech, little exchange. I didn’t expect that movie to be anything, but it actually turned out to be half decent and made good points. A gun is a thing. It doesn’t do anything by itself, it just sits there. There are objects in the world that are inherently dangerous, and they just sit there until somebody does something with them. The electric rail and the subway line are comparable, you know? But most people don’t encounter that. To me it’s all about what people decide to do with the things that are around us, the things that we have at our disposal.

You could agree with Bob Dylan’s argument in “Masters of War,” which condemns guys like that Nicholas Cage character, or you could agree with the arms dealer’s argument, that if he wasn’t there someone else would be. He’s agnostic as to what they do with the guns. He just pro

vides people with these inanimate objects, etc.

Both those things are true in a certain way, but the responsibility for exploiting the human capacity for violence is not free of moral consequences. The arms dealers do have responsibility, especially when you’re dealing in a situation like that. Rwanda proved, if it needed proving, that people will do what they’re going to do regardless of what equipment they have. The majority of the murders in Rwanda were committed with machetes and shovels. So if you don’t have the more sophisticated weapons you’ll use what you’ve got. But it’s probably true that it’s easier to imagine when you don’t have to get so messy. I think there’s something about firearms that allows you to stand back from what you’re doing and not perceive it as such a personal choice on your part.

© Jim Motavalli

Environmental issues, including global warming, may not lend themselves to the kind of cinematic imagery that populates your songs. Does that make it harder to write environmental songs?

For me the process has to start with that emotional trigger that I talked about earlier. The new song “Beautiful Creatures” is a response to exactly that. I look around and I see this extinction going on. Most of the species being lost are ones we don’t really notice, including tropical insects and stuff like that. But some of them are very noticeable: the polar bear, for instance, the tiger, these creatures that loom large in our imagination as storybook characters when we’re kids as symbols of power, of divinity even. And we’re killing them off. In fact, for all practical purposes, we have killed them off. It won’t be long before there’s nothing out there that can’t survive in a zoo. And I just felt the tragedy of that so much that I wrote that song. So it’s not so much a question of whether a song’s hard or easy to write as of something just hitting me at the right moment at the right way that just gets the process going.

What are the environmental issues that concern you most?

I think climate change is the obvious one because it jeopardizes our ability to feed ourselves, and a lot of people will die. You don’t hear it reported that way too much in the media. Right now it’s being presented as more of an inconvenience. You know, “My goodness! The people in lower Manhattan will have to move uptown!” But it’s much more than that for people who live on the coast of Bangladesh. Most of the country is three feet above sea level, so it’s going to become uninhabitable. And where are all of those millions of people going to go? And how are they going to be fed? Because currently they grow crops on all that land and it won’t be there to grow crops on anymore. Species extinction may or may not be attributable to climate change, but it’s certainly affected by it, aggravated by it. You can see the difference in the weather. Everywhere you go, people talk about how the weather isn’t like it used to be. And maybe we’re experiencing an historically predictable climatic shift, or maybe not. But my inclination is to think that we ourselves have a lot to do with it, that the industrial age has created this. But whether it did or not the fact is the climate is changing and it’s changing in ways that are not going to make our lives any easier.

Does overpopulation worry you also?

Yes, but I guess it used to worry me more when it was the only thing that I could see to worry about. I remember reading Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb back in the 1960s and being very disturbed by it. You look around now and there’s way too many people. We’re putting pressure on systems that can’t sustain that many people. Technically, it would be possible to feed the population that we have now if everybody did everything right, but nobody’s doing the right thing, and in fact we’re going the opposite way. It won’t be that long until we can’t feed the numbers of people that we have, and the numbers of people continue to grow. Without massive loss of life, we’re in bad shape. And obviously the massive loss of life is going to constitute some form of very bad shape, too.

As a Canadian looking south at the United States, which is such a big actor in environmental problems—we’re five percent of the world’s population but consume 30 percent of its resources—do you feel the need to address America because of its role on the world stage?

I don’t think of it so much as Canada versus the U.S. Canada is in no position to call anybody names with respect to the way we’re dealing with the environment. We’re trying to get out of our Kyoto commitments, and that is even such a half-assed attempt to deal with climate change that it’s questionable whether it had that much merit to begin with. But it was at least a step; it represented the nations of the world getting together and going, “Hey, we have to deal with this.” And now Canada is following the Bush lead and trying to get out of it. Not all Canadians think that’s what we should be doing, obviously.

Do you think Canada deserves its “clean and green” image? At least compared to the U.S., it’s generally thought of as more environmentally aware, and yet it has its big extraction industries, including oil shale.

We’ve got our own homegrown thing; we also have uranium mining up north. I came across this in a magazine the other day. The switch to atomic energy is touted because it’s clean, and doesn’t contribute to global warming. But you’ve got to mine that uranium somewhere, and uranium mining is one of the dirtiest, most dangerous kinds of mining there is. The magazine article talked about all the places where uranium is mined and the kinds of pollution that exists there and how the pollution gets into the food chain. We need to be paying attention to all that stuff, and Canada certainly is not. As you said, we’re into the extraction industries in a big way. And what we don’t do at home we export. Our mining companies are guilty of abuses all over the world: of supporting regimes that shouldn’t be supported, exploiting people’s difficult economic conditions everywhere they are. To some extent, Canada is cleaner and greener than part of the U.S., or I should say parts of Canada are. We probably have a bigger amount of apparently unsullied landscape than you guys do. It’s kind of by default.

I believe that Canada is at various times the U.S.‘s largest oil supplier, even more than Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

I’ll take your word for it. Certainly Dick Cheney’s got his eye on Northern Alberta, there’s no doubt about that.

Do you ever have people in the music business say, “You’d do better if you’d shut up about all this political and environmental stuff. You should just write love songs.”

I have heard that, but then I look at “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which was the song of mine that got the most radio play other than “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” My own experience has been the opposite: It was the political stuff that got me the attention, and that can sometimes be problematic. There are people who prefer not to hear that stuff, or who just don’t want to hear it o

ver and over again, and they think that’s what I do exclusively.

I was just thinking also of the song “For What It’s Worth,” Steve Stills’ tune. And probably someone told him he shouldn’t release that, and yet if you think of the number of times that it’s been on the radio and in movies, he’s probably made quite a bit of money off it.

I’m sure he has, and it’s been recorded in great versions by all kinds of different people, too. That’s a good song. It’s really more about the song than the content. People will sing about anything if it has a good enough tune. Sometimes a song like that will come along and it just captures the sentiment of an era without overstating it. You could compare it to “Eve of Destruction” from the same time period, a song that was explicit and hitting you over the head. I could never stand that song. And there’s “For What It’s Worth,” just laying it out more subtly and quietly, and you’re going “yeah.” It made it all the more disturbing in a way, to hear it presented in a quiet fashion.

Or you could look at “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” I remember hearing that on AM radio amongst all the hits in 1979. It was very unusual for a song like that to get on the radio, but it was insanely catchy and that probably has a lot to do with it.

That’s the only reason it was there. I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out why stuff gets played on the radio and why it doesn’t. There are people who are qualified to talk about that more than I am. I never understood it.

Some of the songs on your new album Life Short Call Now (Rounder), especially “See You Tomorrow,” have an almost sludgy, real bass-heavy sound. I liked that. That seemed like a departure for you.

Possibly. The album has a lot of bottom down below where you normally hear a bass playing. And we kind of went for that on purpose. But “See You Tomorrow” has a lovely vocal contribution from Ani DiFranco, a great layered background vocal part. And the song itself, it’s kind of a backhanded love song. It draws from life as much as the rest of my songs do. In the first verse it says, “I met a mercenary once, pushing lethal steel.” I had an offer of a summer job when I was at music school in the mid-1960s. There was a guy who was going down to Central America to run guns to Cuba, and he wanted to have somebody go and watch his back. He was willing to take me. I did entertain the thought for a minute, because it’s just an exotic thing to do. But then I thought, “Whoa, this guy’s going to be in with people who want to kill him, and he wants me to be standing there between him and them. I don’t think so.” My dad pointed out the moral implications of that, and I was glad I decided not to do it. I was in my teens at that point. That incident’s been sort of sitting around all those years waiting to turn up in something, and there it is in a song.

How does your Christian faith inform your activism? Obviously, Jesus was an activist, and some people want to deny that part of him and his work.

He’s another example of someone who was desperately needed, and was also repressed as much as he could be. But it didn’t really take. If the basic principle is to love your neighbor as yourself, you can’t be loving that person and watch him starve, or be a victim of violence. Love to exist has to be an act of principle. By its nature it can’t be passive. That’s, I guess, where my own willingness to feel what happens to other people comes from. Because I didn’t grow up with that. I grew up in a typical more-or-less liberal middle-class household where we were encouraged to pay attention to current events and be aware of what’s going on in the world. But in no way were we ever encouraged to take a stand on those things—except by one teacher that I had very early on.

This stayed with me, or at least it came back to me later as a really significant moment. We used to have show-and-tell at the beginning of every class. This was about grade three, maybe grade four. And this teacher would have show-and-tell, and one day somebody came in with a newspaper clipping about student radicals in Turkey demonstrating against the United States, against NATO bases in Turkey. And she said, “OK, what’s a radical? Does anyone know what a radical is?” Of course none of us third or fourth grade kids knew what a radical was, so she proceeded to explain. It’s somebody that thinks the situation as it exists is not acceptable and is willing to get out there and do what is necessary to change that. Then she said, “I hope you’ll all grow up to be radicals.” That is mind-blowing when you think about it. What a gutsy woman, right? I mean, this is the 1950s. The McCarthy hearings were in full swing in the States. That’s where I first heard of Pete Seeger, in the same show-and-tell, because that teacher was very, very much impressed with Pete Seeger. I think that did make an impression. I didn’t think about it at the time and not for years afterwards. But if you hold that up against the things that some people are told at that age: “Don’t dare make waves, anybody that gets called a radical deserves to be exterminated.” There are kids who are being told that, but I got the opposite.

Research assistance by Timothy Bleasdale and Paul Gleason.


Bruce Cockburn